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Lucy Mangan on the class divide

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“So – what class are you? I can never decide. I think I’m middle-middle class now, because of my job and my accent, but I feel like it’s a very tenuous hold.

I still say ‘toilet’ instead of ‘loo’, I’ve never been to the opera, ballet or skiing. I like reading but am bored to tears by the theatre. Some of my extended family are lawyers and the like, others are on benefits. I went to a state school but Cambridge University. I was brought up in a manky part of south-east London, but not the mankiest. My parents prized education but didn’t get involved in my homework or fill my spare hours with tutors, dance classes or any of the other things with which, I discovered when I got to university, other people had been filling their leisure hours. I’m better off than my parents, but we were perfectly comfortable when I was growing up. Then again, it was a comfort that came from careful saving and apportionment – my parents worried about money and I still do – not because we knew, as truly middle class people do, that there just IS money, sloshing about it the background, ready to be tapped whenever the need – or rather, urge – presents itself.

Class is an everhot potato in this country

But each of us will have an alternative and equally valid definition, weighting these and other factors differently. Probably the only thing we can be sure of is that at some point, we’ve all asked ourselves the question. Class is an ever-hot potato in this country. Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip who was forced to resign after delivering a furious diatribe to Downing Street police officers (when they requested he dismount from his bicycle as the security rules required) could probably have survived if he had limited himself to simple swearing. But the officers claim that he called them “plebs” and commanded they “know their place”. Mitchell admits swearing, and denies the rest. But it just didn’t sound like something the police would make up. It sounded exactly like something a member of a cabinet stuffed with titled Old Etonians and Bullingdon Clubbers would say to people who had to work for a living and who in doing so had made unwarranted incursions into his customarily smooth passage through life. In a week in which (baronet’s son) George Osborne was captured travelling first class with a standard-class ticket and (apparently) claiming he “couldn’t possibly” sit in standard class; with the other – well, why don’t we call them ‘plebs’ for ease of reference? – being the obvious implication.

Over in America, a new – or at least newly named – phenomenon of “rednexploitation” is emerging. The reality TV series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – spun off from TLC’s Toddlers And Tiaras about the particularly southern sections of the US underclass – is its current high watermark. It showcases the Thompson family, whose youngest child, Honey Boo Boo, is fed ‘go-go juice’ (a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull) before competing in the pageants, from which lone fact you may infer all the sorry rest of it. The show is on its way over here, so you can confirm your worst fears soon. But the Thompsons are so extreme – extremely fat, poor and oblivious to all society’s most prized rules – that they provide a fixed point of reference for almost everyone else.

The viewer can know – rather like we do over here with Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – that he or she is definitely, unassailably, richer, cleverer, harderworking, ‘better’ than them. The truly worrying thing, though, is that those Old Etonians in charge know how to use our snobbery against us. They may sacrifice the occasional chief whip to try and prove that there is no us and them, we are all indeed in it together, but only while they try and massage the headlines, the statistics and the language to suggest that all those on benefits are never “hard-working families” or genuinely sick, disabled or unfortunate in some less tangible but equally intractable way, but feckless, reckless scroungers milking the system. It’s an easy thing to do in difficult times. But just as Andrew Mitchell vents his rage on those he obscenely deems beneath him, so we should resist the encouragement to deem and do likewise to others. We should all at least be in that together.”

You can contact Lucy by email at lucy.mangan@stylist.co.uk or follow her at twitter.com/lucymangan

What do you think? Does the class divide still exist in Britain and are those in power exploiting it? Let us know in the comments section below

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